Labels, A Bucket Bike, and the Crock Pot Principle

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about demographics and labels. One of my newest is Author Of A Neglected Blog (there are hordes of us; we could form a voting bloc and take over a city somewhere). Dear Blog Neglecters: you’ll get no judgment from me. I’m one of you now.

Labels are so easy to use as a means of dismissal. Hippy! Fascist! There, now I don’t have to talk to you, listen to you, recognize the reality of your human experience. I feel that most of my own judgment comes from a fear of being judged, and my own assumptions come from a need to relate to others. We label things we don’t understand, things that we fear because of their difference.

It’s not always a bad thing to label, though. One of the most useful interactions I had while pregnant with my first went like this: a coworker asked about my plans for birth, and I told her I was considering a home birth. She said, without any judgment one way or another, “Oh, you’re a crunchy mom.” I had no idea what that label signified. I actually sat down and googled “crunchy mom” – and discovered connections to ideas I didn’t know existed! Her offhand label for me was incredibly useful. So you don’t have to google it: crunchy signifies a certain tendency toward the natural – presumably derived from the sound of chewing granola?

I’m certainly not the crunchiest, but the label fits pretty well in general. I’m thankful she offered it to me, rather than giving me advice about pregnancy/birth/parenting from her own perspective (which was pretty far off from crunchy, as far as I could tell). In the Age of Internets, it’s easy enough to find your own advice, once you know where to start looking. Sometimes it’s useful to know which labels are being used, so you can find your herd.

This is kinda only tangentially related.. but it has got me thinking more about identity lately, in a certain way. Check out our new bucket bike!

Madsen bicycle

This identity of Family Biker is not too comfortable yet, mostly because my legs/butt are still wimpy enough that I can’t ride all over the place, and because the littlest munchkin isn’t always happy with the bike. But it’s so much fun to get places under my own power, especially with kids in tow. I’m growing into it.

This beauty came to us via craigslist. Sylvan came with me to the other side of town to thoroughly check it out before purchasing. At half price it was still pretty spendy (though when compared to the cost of a second car, not so bad at all!) so I didn’t want to get it if he wasn’t comfortable riding in it, or if I was way too wimpy to pedal it with kid weight. But when we got there, he refused to sit in it. I tried to be all cool about it, wait him out – I even borrowed the seller’s kid for a ride down the block and back, quite generous of them all (these guys were really cool – later I found out they were friends-of-friends – small world!) while Sylvan sat in the car harrumphing. Having determined my legs could do bucket bike + kid, I still wanted to know if my particular kid would work in combination with the idea. I cajoled. I harrumphed back. I even called Kaleb (I’m calling your father!) to tell him we were stuck. Then I told the sellers we might not be able to commit today, that I was close to giving up on my grumpy kid. I was in a pretty foul mood about this. They offered a consolation popsicle that Sylvan gruffly declined, said he didn’t want a popsicle, he wanted a sno-cone. Oh, there’s a sno-cone place a few blocks that way, she said. Sensing a way in, I suggested sno-cones all around if Sylvan hopped in the bucket. Suddenly, he was game for a ride.

So I !finally! buckled the stinker in and took off on our test drive. The bike handled easily, gears worked great up the little hills on the way. It was a couple months ago, one of the first nearly hot days of pre-summer, and I was sweating a bit when we found the sno-cone cart, across a busy street. We waited in the long line for about 10 minutes with the giant bike, which is fairly unwieldy when not in motion. As I teetered, imagining myself as a Person Who Owns A Giant Bike, we chatted about which flavors we wanted and which kind to get for Waylon (the kid I borrowed for the first test drive). Sno-cones were obtained. The bicycle was working out. The kid was happy and functioning socially. I still wasn’t sure about this big purchase, but the shift from shitty day to smooth sailing was making me feel a bit giddy at this point, coasting up to the stoplight to head back across the busy street.

And then two of the three sno-cones dumped onto the floor of the bucket.

And I kinda lost it.

I backed the bike up and parked it on the sidewalk. Bent myself double, hanging my head inside the bucket to scoop out the huge sugary mess I had just created in this bike that wasn’t mine. Marveled at the hubris of handing 3 sno-cone cups to a 4-year-old on the back of a bike. Between tossing handfuls of bright red syrup onto the sidewalk, I sort of howled into the bucket. I cried a little. I cried over spilled sno-cones. A mom in an SUV waiting for the light made eye contact, and silently communicated her pity.

I found a lone baby wipe in the deepest recesses of my purse. Once I had swabbed the bottom of the bucket relatively clean, I straightened up, wiggled my stained red fingers at Sylvan, and laughed. He laughed too, at his wacko mom. I looked him in the eye and said come on, let’s go buy this bike. We can be Bike People. This will work out fine.

Does it add or subtract drama if the punch line is that I got my period the next day? Then we could at least slap the label Hormonal over Wacko and I don’t sound quite so ridiculous. I’d like to think that maybe the SUV mom made up a good excuse for me like that, so her pity could mix with empathy. Maybe she’s cried over the equivalent of spilled sno-cones at some point too. At least the bucket is easier to hose down than car upholstery.

Speaking of vehicular spills and compassion for strangers, a student of mine recently told me her grandma advocates The Crock Pot Principle. If someone in front of her in traffic is moving frustratingly slow, she tells herself they must have a Crock Pot full of hot soup in the passenger seat, and they don’t want it to spill on the way to the pot luck. Then she’s still driving slowly, but she’s no longer angry about it. She’s created a feeling of support for a stranger, by consciously changing her assumptions about the situation. The Crock Pot Principle assumes the best about everyone, creating positive stories about events outside of our control. And let’s face it, every single thing that ever happens falls into this category.

If you want to, you can substitute a giant sno-cone for a Crock Pot. I think it’s a little more believable in June in Texas.

Anyway, if I don’t post again for another couple months, you can tell yourself a happy little story to explain my silence.

Fear Of The Screen

In the first few months Kaleb and I lived together, he was getting into a band called the pAper chAse. I suppose those capital A’s are meant to look aggressive and sharp and unusual, which is fitting. It’s well-done music, lots of movement and intensity, Kaleb’s favorite kind of stuff. It’s also the first thing I remember asking him to stop listening to. He didn’t, of course, but man, I had to say something, it seemed almost unhealthy. He described it as the soundtrack to a panic attack. The album was called “Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know” (so you can look it up if your panic attack needs a soundtrack). One song in particular stands out in my memory, opening with the pained scream: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN! ANYTHING CAN GO WRONG!

Becoming a parent opened up a whole new aspect of fear that didn’t exist before for me. There are so many decisions to make, so many flavors of fear to sample from so many angles, so many things that could conceivably go wrong. Sometimes the stakes can seem so dauntingly high. I think motherhood comes with a biologically enhanced ability to imagine horrifying scenarios. Maybe this evolved to keep us on our toes, but it can be paralyzing at times. So one of my biggest personal challenges these days is recognizing when I’m making decisions based on fear rather than love. It’s sometimes hard to sort that out.

Here’s one thing that scares a lot of parents: Too Much Screen Time. Our culture still worships books, and tells a story that learning or experience that happens via a screen is fundamentally inferior, even dangerous. Google “screen time” for a slew of articles/studies on the dangers of screens, each of which concludes that responsible parents should limit screen time for their kids. Have you seen these billboards?


Let’s just bypass the irony of an ad that tells you to unplug your kid by visiting a website about the outdoors. And let me be clear that I’m not anti-kids-touching-frogs; certainly people deserve a chance to experience nature. Yes, go out and Discover the Forest! It’s the whole either/or thing that trips me up here. Is there a good reason to compare playing a video game with holding a frog? Is there anything that says a kid couldn’t do both, or find them both worthwhile? And if one doesn’t like touching slimy jumping things, and prefers manipulating a digital frog, is there something wrong with that? Our nation requires programmers in far greater numbers than herpetologists. And even herpetologists need computer skills to publish their froggy findings. Can’t love for Frogger and love for actual frogs coexist, and even complement each other?

With every new technology comes a new wave of fear. Serial novels rotted the brain; society was losing youngsters to the depravity of recreational reading. By the time Charles Dickens was required reading in schools, there were radio programs to vilify, followed by TV… And here we are with the Internet available anywhere, on tiny screens in our pockets. Their brains! Their eyes! They’ll be ruined if we let them have as much screen time as they want. They’ll spend 24 hours a day glued to media, which is so magically hypnotizing that they’ll never choose to touch real frogs! This is the underlying fear. And it may be true; I don’t have conclusive evidence to the contrary. I just mistrust fear as a basis for decision-making.

One thing I know is that when a thing is limited, it acquires a new and different value. If you never have access to chocolate, and suddenly a big bowl of it appears, you may gorge yourself because you don’t know when your next chance to eat chocolate may be. I’ve seen people whose screen time is limited do the zombie thing; they gorge when they can because they know it’s soon going to be turned off. Many of the studies you’ll find via that “screen time” Google search don’t allow for this factor, and they also don’t distinguish between using screens to escape from reality and using them as a tool to explore the world. They don’t account for whether a parent is engaged in media alongside the child, or using that time as an opportunity to disconnect.

We don’t limit screen time for our 4-year-old son. He can manipulate a trackpad, mouse, and arrow keys, navigate websites, and turn on and focus a projector. He can find his favorite shows on Netflix, or his favorite games on Starfall, Red Fish, Boowa & Kwala, PBS Kids, or Nick Jr. He can add items to his Amazon Wish List (it’s currently 6 pages long, he thinks big). The screen is one tool/activity among many for him. He does often choose to watch shows or play games, and he loves it when we watch and play with him, but if there’s something else interesting going on he often chooses to shut the laptop and join in.

Ten years later, Kaleb and I still occasionally yell ANYTHING CAN GO WRONG! at each other. It’s a good reminder not to descend into panic, to recall the flip side of ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. So far, our kids haven’t turned into drooling obese zombies.

Well, the little one is actually pretty fat and drooly, but we’re not too worried yet.

Pooped Upon

Does all her own stunts. Makes all her own sound effects.

I’m gonna go ahead and assume that it’s just the parents reading, and the ‘ewww, poooop’ folks are avoiding this particular post. So I’ll tell you Cozy woke me up this morning with a fart and a smile. And that nothing gets me out of bed faster than the promise of avoiding a poopy diaper. I caught one! But then, the morning poops are the easiest to catch.

Let me explain.

A few months ago, I was asked to speak to a new moms group about attachment parenting (not as an expert, just as a Real Life Example). In preparation, I made a list of Weird Things We Do so I could sort out which ones were related to attachment principles and which ones were just weird. Then, just for fun, I tried to rank them in order of their weirdness. It was a strange exercise, and didn’t accomplish much. And it was kind of hard to determine what would stand out in comparison with a “mainstream” or “normal” perspective, because a) that is, of course, impossible to define and b) I don’t seem to have a good frame of reference to even guess at it anymore. I hang out with a wide variety of weirdos.

Sometimes I temporarily lose the ability to see that the things I do could seem odd to others. You know how if you say a word over and over and over and over, it starts to lose its meaning, and finally becomes just a random sound you’re making with your mouth? It feels like that, in reverse. I happen to glance sideways at The Way Things Are, detect a glitch, change myself and my patterns to reflect the new idea, and eventually wonder how it ever felt normal to just go along with that particular thing. It feels like remembering something long-forgotten. Some days, though, I can also kind of remember what I was like before I asked these questions.

Yeah, I guess we do some weird stuff around here. But I promise we’re not doing it just to be weird. We really truly are following our guts and our research, making the choices that are best for our family, and living our lives in the most joyful way we can. I imagine, though, that some of it may look positively insane to a casual bystander.

For example, we help our 7-month-old baby pee and poop without her diaper. We’ve done it since she was born, and we did it with her brother too. It’s a practice with a couple equally-odd-sounding names: Natural Infant Hygiene, Elimination Communication. We call it EC, “peeing the baby,” or “catching one.” We are not alone in this practice – there’s an international organization! It’s called Diaper-Free Baby.

No, really. I inherited the local EC email list, and currently host the metro area’s Diaper-Free Baby meetings. People gather at our house once a month for support in this idea, and to share tips for things like determining when a baby is about to go,  sources for waterproof pads, and the best way to clean upholstery. We have a good setup for this type of gathering; our floors are tile and concrete, and there’s a deck out back to pee off of. We have two little potties and a small seat for the toilet. Several guest babies have peed in our sink. See, it’s starting to sound a little weird now even to me.

It’s not all that weird, though, is it? Most babies around the world do this. Their mothers don’t have the luxury of choosing between buying magic chemical pellet diapers or continually washing cloth ones. But those mothers also don’t want to be pooped upon, so they figure out how to tell when the baby is going to go, and how to help the baby get it in the right place, until the baby can do so herself. Here, glance sideways at this plan for just a second: help a baby pee and poop in her pants exclusively from birth through age 2 (or 3?), just when she has developed Very Strong Opinions and a desire for control over her environment, then announce that pee and poop no longer belong in pants and should be deposited elsewhere (and please note that the depositing of pee and poop is one of the few things in a toddler’s life over which she actually has complete control). That plan actually sounds kind of insane.

Wait, am I judging you for putting diapers on your baby? Oh, no I am not. Most definitely not. It’s what people do around here, and we do it too. Our diaper-free baby wears diapers.

Because, you see, we are half-assed ECers. Not only do we do this weird thing, we also don’t do it the Right Way. There are EC books and training programs and online support forums and, like, professional EC coaches, and everything. You’re supposed to be consistent about it, even when only doing it part-time. You’re supposed to really pay attention, and always follow your system of signals, develop your sixth sense of pee intuition, or it won’t “work.”

That poop doesn’t fly at If And When HQ. The only really consistent thing about our household (other than LOVELOVELOVE) is inconsistency. We like to keep each other on our toes, that way we are reminded to expect the unexpected. Now that Sylvan’s older, there are snack trays to assemble, forts to build, dance parties to join, bus ride adventures to take, and the baby is strapped to me for a good part of all that. If I’m not constantly wondering whether I’m about to be pooped upon, I find I can roll with the flow of our days much better. So Cozy usually wears diapers. And when we are out and about, or when we’re too distracted to recognize her particular “gotta pee” squawk (quite a lot of the time), she usually goes in them. When we catch one we say yay! I caught one! When we miss one, well, we miss one, and wash one more diaper.

I could also mention that we usually use disposable diapers at night, exposing Cozy’s little sleeping butt to those magical chemical pellets and making a regular stinky contribution to the landfill, but allowing mom and baby both to sleep mostly uninterrupted. Then I could be wrong from three distinct directions, on the single issue of baby pee and poop. Isn’t that exciting?

Wait, am I accusing you of judging me now? Nah, you wouldn’t do that. People don’t, usually. What you might do instead is feel defensive about your own baby poop choices, which are of course different, and then feel compelled to justify them in detail, like I just did. If we were talking about nutrition, or sleeping, or education, or childbirth, or whatever other thousand situations we have to sort out as parents, you’d have a story for all of those too. Maybe you and I are a little bit unsure about how this is all going to turn out. Because nobody knows. You could try to do it all the Normal Way, whatever that is, and your kid could still turn out to be super weird. Or you could make the fringiest decisions possible, just for kicks, and your kid could turn into Alex P. Keaton.

All this is to say that I’m pretty sure all that matters is the LOVELOVELOVE anyway, and that whatever works for now to keep the family connected and happy is the best way.

So we focus on that, and let the poop fall where it may.

I Am The 1%

I’m feeling grateful for my exceedingly good luck today. Just how lucky am I? Well, let’s see.

I’m alive right now. The people living on Earth right now comprise approximately 6.5% of humans ever born.

And life right now, as I’m living it, is pretty good. For example, a nutritious, tasty variety of food – including chocolate bars, vegetables, 35 different kinds of grains and legumes, peanut butter, tomato sauce, spices, salt, fruit, noodles – is available to me. I don’t even have to grow it myself, though I could do some of that if I were so inclined – instead I pay money and pick out stuff to stock my cupboards. Hey, I have cupboards! Also, where I am living right now, it is standard practice to outfit each living quarters with a machine that keeps food cold, one that keeps it frozen, and one or two others that heat it up. Right here in my house!

Check this out: if I get thirsty, I have but to turn a handle on any one of these three sinks, and clean, cold water is delivered right into my cup. Wowza! No, seriously, it’s actually pretty amazing. Not only did most of the people who were once living on Earth not have this, but 14% of those now living do not have access to clean water, much less running water indoors. Bonus: there’s a machine in my house that washes clothes. I just put them in there with some soap and close the lid, and then later, my clothes are clean! Hot water comes out of my shower whenever I ask it to, for as long as I want. I poop in water and push a button and it goes away. How many kings and queens through history could say the same?

My living quarters are also equipped with electric lights, secure doors and windows, comfortable furniture, and climate controls. My family sleeps relatively safely and comfortably every night.

Speaking of my family – in keeping with the leading trends of the right now that I’m living in, my husband is not only socially expected and legally bound not to kill or assault me or our children, but is willing to be an equal partner in household tasks and parenting. Woohoo! This is totally amazing, or at least it would be to billions of women who lived before me. They might also be amazed that I could own property, vote, study or work in any number of fields, remain unmarried, wear whatever I please, and move about freely in public.

We’re just getting started here.

I own a car, a machine that can get me and my family anywhere in this city within the hour, and across the continent in a couple days. If I really wanted to, I could buy a seat on a jet plane and fly through the air to anywhere on the planet within a day or two.

I have a mobile phone, a little machine that I carry around with me that I can use to instantly talk to anyone else who has one. I can also use it for electronic messages. If I am lost it will tell me where I am!

I can listen to any type of recorded music wherever I am, quietly so no one else can hear, or loud enough to rattle the windows and bug the neighbors. (Hi, friendly neighbors!)

I know how to read. I have a library card. I can choose from thousands upon thousands of books. Until the day it again becomes possible for me to read a whole book (T-minus 10 years?), I can read about anything I can think of on the Internet in bits and pieces.

Oh yeah, the Internet. I can write what I’m thinking and set it loose in the cloud of information, and other people can read it and tell me what they think. I can converse with strangers all over the globe. We can change each other’s minds, or we can cheer each other up, or we can spout meaningless drivel, or all three at once! We can topple corrupt governments! We can find recipes for salad dressing!

And here’s where I get political, so bail out now if you’d like to simply bask in gratitude for the day.

Though most of those reading this are, like me, living more comfortably than billions of the other humans now on the planet, never mind the trillions who lived in the past – for a select few, even this is not enough. For these few, the 1% of the all-time top 1% – no, even just a fraction of those – this life of unprecedented possibility and resources and leisure and bliss is still not enough, and they actually fight to deny their fellow citizens the peace of mind of affordable healthcare, adequate housing, nutrition programs, student loan reform. They fight to make the rest of us pay, with our paychecks and with our blood, for their bad financial bets and their wars of aggression. They fight not only to keep what they have, but to take more.

This is what I get angry about, and why I support the Occupy movement. Hey, you few at the top, when will you have enough? If living better than kings and queens doesn’t do it for you, what level of dominance will you ever settle for? If nobody stands up now to stop you, will you ever stop?

Standing invitation to that 0.001%: send me an email and grab a seat on a jet. I’ll pick you up at the airport in my car, welcome you into my safe, comfortable home, where you can sit and look out this window at that blue sky, sip a glass of clean water, and breathe a deep, alive breath. I’ll even share my chocolate with you.

How could this not be enough?

Full Of Unlimited Potential *Possibilities!

I mentioned in my last post that we recently attended a friend’s memorial service. Our friend Esme was murdered on New Year’s Eve. That loss has colored everything since. Lots of other people have written powerful things about it… this is just another little something from pretty far afield, to join the constellation of rememberings that are spackling the internet. And because I didn’t know her well, I’m writing mostly about me. I’m sorry about that, because it would have been great to know her better. But grief is always about the griever in any case, so here it is.

Esme was super awesome. No, really, she was, I’m not just saying that out of deference or with my rosy hindsight glasses on. If you’d asked me about her before, I’d have told you the same then. I’d have sighed, smiled, and said, “Oh yeah, Esme. Isn’t she so awesome?” She had hundreds of friends, acquaintances like me, deep connections with many others, and all of us feeling that she genuinely loved us. If someone aimed to send this city into a howling tailspin, taking out Esme would’ve been tactic #1. And that’s basically what happened. We’re all still reeling. Though I doubt the person who took her life realized it would have such an effect – and wow, what a giant shit-pile of bad karma he landed in, didn’t he.

Esme was the Ultimate Fan. She was the girl in the front row, grinning and rocking out. I knew her as a music fan and an enthusiastic karaoke singer – she came to a bunch of our Karaoke Underground shows over the years. Kaleb and I have always said our favorite thing about KU is that it brings together people who aren’t afraid to be seen having an all-out irony-free good time, and Esme did just that. She was a great duet singer, getting people up on stage, pulling them into the fun.

I don’t know why it’s so uncommon, so remarkable, to be openly enthusiastic and warm and welcoming, but I know I don’t do it, and I know Esme did. It was kind of magic, but also the simplest thing. She just loved. The overriding feeling I have in reaction to this mess is a desperate need to become awesomer, to spread that love, to be less selfish with myself. What does it take to smile, to let people know you appreciate them as they are, to get right up next to the stage and let the band know they’re rocking it? I don’t think it is magic, actually. I think it takes a tiny little risk of the ego, and a habit of just taking that tiny risk, over and over, until it becomes you. I’ll be working on that.

Know what else I’m going to be working on? Finding ways to make the world less *actually risky* for women to exist in. It’s not just about getting one guy off the streets – it’s about making ours a culture where violence like this doesn’t happen. My raging feminist has been reawakened, and I don’t even know where to aim her.

Well, there is one obvious direction, actually. Esme worked with Girls Rock Camp, an amazing organization you should check out if you’re not familiar with it. She poured herself into it, touched a lot of young lives in the process, and changed the course of things a bit. Me, I went to the showcases and cheered on the bands, but I’ve never volunteered, because I didn’t think I rocked enough. Clearly, I was missing the point.

At Esme’s memorial, so much love was given voice. My favorite story was from Emily Marks, remembering when Esme started as a volunteer with GRC and the camp staff had a policy of not referring to the campers as “cute,” but instead commenting on other facets of the girls’ awesomeness. Esme was into that idea, but confessed she had some trouble implementing it because “Dude, they’re all so adorable!” and declared they needed a code phrase. To this day at GRC, if the urge to point out a girl’s cuteness is too strong to suppress, you’ll hear “she’s just so full of unlimited potential!” Favorite new phrase of all time.

A person could get pretty angry thinking about the unlimited potential that was wasted when Esme was killed. And that anger would be righteously justified. And also… it’s a heavy, and light, thought… Esme’s own potential is us, now. We’re all full of unlimited potential. We always have been, but now that she’s gone…

Dude, we’d better get to it.

* UPDATE: I got my P words mixed up. Like Gerald from the Jimmy Castor Bunch, only backwards. (How do you say P-O-T-E-N-T-I-A-L? POSSIBILITY!) This is to say that the phrase is Full Of Unlimited Possibilities. Oops. I was alerted to this by the creation of the Esme Barrera Unlimited Possibilities Scholarship Fund, which you should donate to right now.

Nudist Colony: Pop. 1

A version of this has been hanging on our fridge for a couple years now. It’s Sylvan’s signature Venn diagram. There’s really not much more to say about it.  Who am I to get in the way of true happiness?

The Hair Issue

Sylvan’s hair… It’s remarkable. As in, lots of people remark upon it.

At birth, he had a head of dark brown hair. All the new growth, though, was light blonde. When we’re out and about, people often ask me if his dad has blonde hair. Nope, dad’s hair is boring brown just like mine, and Sylvan’s will probably get darker too as he gets older. I hear his uncle Jacob was towheaded until puberty struck, so maybe that’s the genetic blueprint. I’ve had this conversation dozens of times.

He’s often mistaken for a girl, I assume because his hair is long. Or sometimes because of the hot pink sneakers he picked out at Savers. (Last month a maybe 8-year-old kid at the playground heard me using male pronouns, looked him up and down, and asked me directly, “Oh, is she a boy?” a phrasing I found genuinely delightful.) Or it could be because I call him “Sylvie” sometimes. In any case, being read as a girl doesn’t seem to bother him, and I hardly notice anymore. I don’t usually correct people on his gender unless it’s our first meeting and we may see them again, and then it’s just because I don’t want them to feel dumb or angry later when they find out.

More than just long for a boy’s hair, though – Sylvan’s hair is also tied in knots, matted, sticking up all over the place like chicken feathers. People don’t usually comment directly on that, though I can tell sometimes they’re noticing the mess, and usually when they comment on his hair color (“it’s so blonde!”) there’s the “and unkempt!” addendum lurking unspoken. One recent remark took the high road, “He seems like a kid who knows what he wants.” That he does, yes. And at this point in time, Sylvan is quite sure that he does not want his hair to be brushed.

The tangled hair has been something of an Issue for me lately. I used to be able to persuade him to let me brush it out every now and then. He even let me trim it a few months ago. On our big road trip up north this fall, he agreed to let me detangle the mess so he could use the hair dryer on the hotel wall. But since then, no dice. I even bought him a hair dryer for Christmas, hoping the allure of electric wind would get me permission to do some regular brushing. He dried my hair with it a few times, but lost interest when he realized my ulterior motive.

So every day I stewed, and wondered when he was going to let me fix his hair. I’m sure that every day I asked him some form of that question. I snuck up on him with conditioner in the shower, which helped some, and he didn’t protest too much. But I kept wishing I’d get a chance to Fix the Issue.

I talked it through with Kaleb, to get at what the Issue was, exactly. His hair is clean enough. It does get in his eyes some, so there was kind of a pretense of an excuse there, that maybe he could see better, play easier, if it were brushed and trimmed. But really, when it came down to it, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed by the hairstyle choice of my 4-year-old son. Worried that strangers would judge me as weird at best, neglectful at worst. We make some unusual parenting choices, and I do ultimately trust our process, but I’m sensitive to judgment. I give it too much sway, I concoct imaginary defenses against it, and I feel it as a vague potential danger to our family. The word “neglectful” conjures up demons of CPS files, and while there’s currently no Hairstyle Police, the thread of fear leads me there. Following my fears to this very unlikely end did help some. But I couldn’t shake it completely.

The turning point came at a friend’s memorial service a couple weeks ago. We didn’t bring Sylvan along. It’d been years since either of us had attended a funeral, and we weren’t sure what this one would be like. We didn’t want to confuse him, or disrupt the proceedings chasing a squirrelly (unkempt!) kid, so he played with his neighbor friend and we just brought the baby with us. Almost as soon as we arrived we wished he had come, and resolved to include him more in important stuff like that.

But that’s fodder for another post. Back to the turning point for the Hair Issue: a musician stood up with his guitar to sing a song in honor of our friend. Kaleb turned to me with a quiet chuckle and whispered, “His hair looks just like Sylvan’s!” And suddenly there was revealed a possibility in living, human form: Sylvan all grown up, with a mess of brown tangled hair. We both giggled in relief as we realized the other fear that had been behind the Hair Issue: “what if he never brushes it?” Well, so what if he doesn’t? Apparently it’s possible to survive as an adult in today’s society with your hair all messed up. One could even become quite successful in a number of fields despite (because of?) such a style choice. This guy was doing all right. He was a loving enough, smart enough, mature enough human that he could write and share music with a grieving community. That’s a pretty high bar, actually. Did anyone there judge him for his “rat’s nest” or tut-tut under their breath about a lack of hygiene? Nope, at most they noticed it, as they might a jacket someone wore. I’m guessing most of them didn’t even notice, because it didn’t matter. Our friend was dead, and we were all alive, and jeez, why the heck would I ever nag my kid about something as stupid as brushing his hair?

I still occasionally catch myself wanting to mess with Sylvan’s hair, but when I notice that thought, I reply in my head with something like this:

His hair is a visible sign of our love and respect.

Makes me smile and back off every time. A couple days ago, really feeling that thought, I rested my hand on his head and asked him, “When are you gonna get your hair cut?” just as I used to. He didn’t swat my hand away, he just said, matter-of-factly, “Tomorrow.” Huh. Turns out he meant the kind of tomorrow that’s always ahead of today, not the kind where you schedule a date with a comb and scissors. But I’m ok with that.

A Tale Of Two Days

A sunny, windy Friday morning. Cozy woke me up, I got her a fresh diaper, and we sat snuggling and nursing on the couch. Sylvan woke up and staggered over to snuggle with us. After a few minutes piled up there, blissfully shrugging off sleep, we decided we’d take the bus downtown to the children’s museum. We hadn’t been since they’d changed exhibits from golf ball ramps to dinosaurs, and I thought the dinosaur exhibit was due to end soon.

We ate breakfast as I looked up the website, thinking I’d bite the bullet and spring for another annual membership, ours having been expired for a couple months – but there I found a dinosaur costume contest! Make a homemade dinosaur costume, take a picture of yourself wearing it in the dinosaur exhibit, submit it, ask all your friends to “like” it, and win a year’s membership. There were only two entries so far… and the contest ended in less than a week! How lucky! We had just begun a new budget with the new year, so money was on my mind. This could save us a good chunk, and be fun besides.

Excited, we got into making dinosaur masks to take with us. Sylvan decided on a triceratops with paper plates and staples for me, a generic spiky-headed one for baby sister, and a fierce green-glittery paper bag T. Rex for himself. He proudly carried the bag full of masks the half-mile to the bus stop and into the children’s museum, which we had practically to ourselves. He explored and played for hours with me following along, the baby slept and nursed and slept some more in the Ergo. We had a lunch picnic in the lobby, found some magic growing dinosaurs for $2 in the gift shop, and got a great snapshot of him in his scary mask, staring down a model of a baby T. Rex. I submitted it via email that night as he slept. I felt like supermom. What a Perfect Happy Day.

Paper bag mask vs. museum's baby T Rex

totally the scariest

Later the next week, a similar morning scene unfolded… but on this morning, Cozy and I were still in the bathroom when Sylvan woke up. So instead of cuddling and cooing at his sister, he headed straight for the laptop in the living room and began a Busytown Mysteries marathon on Netflix. When I’d finished getting Cozy dressed, I made him a tray for breakfast and sat next to him on the couch with another laptop to check email. We each stopped now and then to bug the other one, or take a bathroom break, or feed/play with Cozy, and were drawn back to our separate screens.

Then he said, out of the blue, “Did we win the dinosaur contest?” My heart sank as I realized I had forgotten all about it over the busy weekend, hadn’t even checked the site, hadn’t asked our friends to like his photo… with a groan and a grimace, I clicked it, and we had missed it by one day. There was Sylvan’s photo, with two pity votes from strangers. A cardboard triceratops had come from behind and won, just like we’d planned to.

Just like I’d planned to. He was only in it for the fun. But that thought came too late. He’d already seen my reaction, and he burst into tears and ran out of the room.

With a fierce pang, I realized we’d spent all morning on parallel trajectories, disconnected. Topped off by me making him cry over my petty disappointment.

Argh! The agony of getting it all wrong! It stung so much more because it contrasted so exactly against that other day, the Perfect Happy Day. The day that I’d just managed to ruin retroactively by making it all about something other than the awesome fun time that it was. I went after him with hugs to apologize for being silly, to say that his costume was definitely the best, and didn’t we have so much fun exploring with the dinosaurs? and he seemed ok with it again, but it still felt awful. I texted Kaleb with a howl of Stupid Me, and he replied… that I should just love Sylvan and love myself.

With another pang, I realized it was noon and I hadn’t eaten anything.

It’s simple, almost ridiculously so – be present with love for myself and my family, and it all works so smoothly, so easily! It’s as if we were all made to do this! But if I let that simple beauty slip to the background, let something else come into focus for too many minutes, lose too many opportunities to connect – then my blissful hike in the woods is interrupted by a tree branch smacking me in the face. Mothering is a hard gig some days.

My takeaways:
– I just gotta eat breakfast. As a nursing mom, I should probably eat it twice.
– I was willing to pay outright for the museum membership from the beginning. Why and how did it become such a disappointment? and transferred momentarily to the 4-year-old, no less? My expectations and my lack of flexibility, combined with a good dose of forgetfulness (which is all over everything these days) created the problem.
– Inertia is important. Beginning each day with a plan – or even just the seed of an idea – can make a big difference.

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